Christopher Niesche: Aussie mining giant BHP is turning its back on fossil fuels but will investors follow?

OPINION:

Mining giant BHP is reshaping itself to tap into the megatrends of electrification and food security, turning its back on fossil fuels. But its investors may not yet come along for the ride.

The Australian miner will spend US$5.7 billion developing a giant potash deposit in Canada, on the expectation that demand for fertiliser will rise steeply in the coming years.

At the same time, it is hiving off its petroleum division to merge it with oil and gas producer Woodside Petroleum and selling thermal coal mines and its lower quality metallurgical coal mines, which produce coal for making steel.

Instead, it will tilt its portfolio of mine assets to what BHP CEO Mike Henry calls “future-facing commodities”, such as copper and nickel, key elements for the electrification of the economy.

In the background, iron ore will remain the backbone of the company, with the huge cashflows from its West Australian mines funding ambitious plans to expand BHP’s copper, nickel and potash operations.

New mines take several years to develop, so mining companies can’t “pivot” in the same way that, say, tech start ups can. But even by these standards, Henry is bringing an extraordinarily long-term perspective to his reshaping of the 150-year-old miner.

BHP believes the first stage of its Canadian Jansen potash deposit has “100 years of life” and points out this is just one deposit. It has another four or five of similar quality within 100km of the Jansen deposit.

The company has already spent US$4.5 billion evaluating the Jansen mine and sinking 1000-metre deep service and production shafts.

You’re probably thinking that, at a cost of over US$4 billion, this hole has to be pretty special. And it seems it is.

BHP has “supersized” the shafts so they will be big enough to accommodate the mine when it expands to stages two, three or four in the years to come.

The investment is one of the biggest costs and risks involved in potash mining and an example of how BHP is thinking decades down the track.

The miner expects the global decline in soil quality will increase demand for quality food from China and other developing nations. This will see demand for potash rise as nations seek to improve agricultural productivity.

BHP is doing a similar thing with petroleum, which has contributed a fifth of its earnings over the past decade. There’s probably another decade of oil profits left but instead of trying to wring out every last drop, BHP is hiving its petrol arm off. This could hurt short-term profits, but will ultimately win the support of investors, who are increasingly focussed on environment, social and governance measures.

Even without oil revenue, BHP will be awash with cash for the next few years thanks to high iron ore prices, and will use these funds to pay for its potash, copper and nickel expansions.

The restructure overshadowed BHP’s stunning profit. The miner last week reported an 88 per cent increase in attributable profit to $US17 billion for the year to June and a US$2 a share dividend to shareholders. The dividend will bring total payouts to shareholders this year to US$15 billion.

Much of the good result was thanks to a resurgence in iron ore prices – helped along by the fact BHP and its Australian neighbour Rio Tinto are among the world’s most efficient miners who can extract iron ore at the lowest cost.

High prices won’t last forever. Iron ore prices are already falling thanks to China cutting its steel output. The fall is expected to be only temporary but even if it is the long-term output isn’t great. China is looking to secure supply from mines in Brazil and Africa instead of Australia as it seeks new ways to punish us for being a democracy.

Prices will inevitably fall further.

But the good news for BHP shareholders is the company has a long-term plan to secure its future profits as fossil fuels decline further in value and iron ore profits fall.

The question is whether investors will be happy with a smaller BHP – one without petroleum, with less coal and with lower iron ore profits – in the years ahead or whether they won’t have the patience to await the long-term pay off from the new strategy.

BHP’s shares have been buffeted by a plunge in iron ore prices this week and are always a bit up and down because the company is listed in Australia and London, and traders often seek to arbitrate the difference between its Australia and U.K. share prices. (In fact, the company is unwinding its dual Australian and U.K. corporate structure.)

Even so, the shares are down 15 per cent since the company announced the plan to secure its future for the coming decades.

BHP might be taking the long-view, but it seems many investors aren’t ready to join them.

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